Ancestral Villages of Local German-Russian Families Visited

Raile, Penny. "Ancestral Villages of Local German-Russian Families Visited." St. Francis Herald, 1 August 1996.


The year 1885 brought the first of many German-Russian families to Cheyenne County. The settlement northwest of St. Francis was part of a large movement of German-Russian emigrants from the Black Sea area that primarily settled in the Dakotas. (The other German-Russians in Kansas were from the Volga area of Ukraine.)

Families with names such as Bandel, Burr, Eberhardt, Feikert, Gienger, Hilt, Holzwarth, Keller, Knorr, Krein, Landenberger, Leibbrandt, Lippert, Lutz, Miller, Ochsner, Peters, Raile, Rath, Reichert, Rueb, Schauer, Schlepp, Schlittenhardt, Straub, Wagner, Walz, Willt, Zimbleman, and Zweygardt settled in the area between 1885-1928.

The German-Russian emigrants could trace their ancestry to Germany in the late 1700's when Catherine the Great and then later Alexander I offered them freedom of religion, freedom from military service, freedom from taxes and, most important of all perhaps, free land and the right to acquire additional land in Ukraine.

The Germans settlers developed a rich agricultural area in Ukraine. The Germans built their own churches, their own schools, their own communities, and by the standards of their new country, they prospered. Out of jealousy, this prosperity caused the government to start taking away some of their special privileges.

The first change came in 1866 when the Germans started to lose control of their schools. Russian instead of German was decreed as the language of instruction in the German schools. Then in 1874 the Military Law was introduced which abolished the exemptions the German colonists had enjoyed for decades. Young German men were eligible for conscription into the Russian Army which was considered a death sentence in many cases.

Along with religious persecution and several years of crop failure, the German colonists started a movement of relocation to United States, Canada and South America. They were motivated by the economic opportunities in the New World learned through German newspapers printed in the United States and sent to the Ukraine. Also, personal letters from pioneer emigrants described a better life, and railroad agents were sent to persuade the Germans to emigrate with the promise of homestead land.

The German inhabitants remaining in Russia when the Bolsheviks staged their revolution in October 1917 had their property confiscated by the Communists. Requisitioning and looting of the colonies assumed alarming proportions. When Stalin announced his "Five-Year-Plan" in October of 1928, collective farms were established and German families were "resettled" (forcibly deported to labor camps by cattle cars in Siberia and elsewhere).

For decades, life in those small German villages in Ukraine which had long enjoyed an enviable reputation of prosperity, were distant memories. Access to the villages by Americans was almost impossible. However, North Dakota State University recently organized a tour called The Journey to the Homeland to visit the villages long thought destroyed by war and neglect.

The Trip

Raymond and Fleda Raile of St. Francis and their daughter, Penny Raile of Los Angeles, California joined the tour group in June of 1996. After a week of touring southern Germany and Alsace, France, they arrived in Odessa, Ukraine staying at the Black Sea Hotel. The Railes were particularly interested in visiting the Lutheran Glueckstal Colonies (Glueckstal, Neudorf, Bergdorf and Kassel, which is now part of Moldova), the Lutheran Beresan Colonies (Rohrbach, Worms, Waterloo) and the Lutheran village of Hoffnungstal of the Bessarabian Villages. These were the primary villages of the St. Francis emigrants. The village of Sarata of the Bessarabian Villages (home of the Bandels and Kellers), was visited by other tour members.

On their second day in Odessa, the Railes joined by 32 of the 49 tour members, boarded an Intourist bus with six interpreters. After a three hour drive over rough roads that included crossing the Moldova border, they arrived in the village of Glueckstal. They were greeted by the mayor of the small village of about 1,500 with the traditional Ukrainian ceremony of welcome that included the presenting of bread and salt (khleb i sol') as a sign of hospitality.

After the welcoming, tour members spontaneously dispersed through the village and were surprised by the warm-hearted and zealous reception of the locals who insisted they come into their homes for wine, cheese, buttermilk and bread. Many of these homes were the original German-built homes that typically had red tiled roofs, two windows in front, extra thick walls and sat in large courtyards with summer kitchens, threshing areas, barns, flower gardens and orchards. The old German Lutheran Church built in 1845 still stood. Original flooring and architecture were visible in the church that was being used as a cultural center. The tombstones in the cemetery had been removed.

In the evening, a traditional Ukrainian meal was served with singing and dancing at the local school. Late in the evening, the very tired Americans retired to individual homes of the locals only to find more food and wine waiting for them. Not being able to speak each other's language did not deter anyone from a memorable experience (including finding the outdoor facilities).

Early the next morning, the Americans boarded the bus to continue their journey. The next stop of Neudorf, a thriving beautiful village of about 1,000 people, was only a few miles from Glueckstal.

Many St. Francis families can trace their relatives to the Neudorf village (Eberhardt, Feikert, Gienger, Krein, Landenberger, Lippert, Miller, Raile, Schauer, Schlepp and Walz). The village streets were lined with the fruit trees planted by the Germans years ago. The bus first stopped at the old German Lutheran church built in 1825 that was being used as a school. Once again, the tour members immediately dispersed with old maps in hand to look for ancestral homes. Many of the old German homes remained. The Railes felt confident they located the Gottlieb Raile home that was guarded by a ferocious goose. Unfortunately, time was limited and the bus moved on to the third Glueckstal village called Bergdorf.

Bergdorf was smaller. The old German Lutheran church built in 1851 and the pastor's home still remained. A statue of Lenin was in front of the church now used as a cultural center. Lenin statues were quite common throughout the villages and remained only because no one wanted to take the time or expense to remove them. The landscape in all of the Glueckstal villages was rich with foliage. The hills were rolling and the wheat fields were ready for harvest. The land is still owned by the government and operated as a collective farm.

Time did not allow the group to visit the fourth Glueckstal village of Kassel. A three hour "delay" at the Moldova/Ukrainian border by guards that did not know what to do with a bus load of Americans in torrential rain just added more adventure to the journey.

For rest of the week, smaller groups of tour members visited German villages closer to Odessa. Penny Raile and another tour member were able to spend an entire day in the village of Hoffnungstal. This village was home also to many St. Francis families (Hilt, Leibbrandt, Rueb, Zweygardt). Fortunately with the help of an Ukrainian interpreter and the luck of stumbling into the only German left in the village, the two were able to document a wealth of information about the village that had suffered very little from the war. The old German Lutheran church stood in the center of town. The wide streets were lined with mulberry and cherry trees. The fruit supplemented an already hearty picnic lunch.

Word spread fast that Americans were in town. Curious locals came out of their homes for a look, offered information and willingly posed for pictures. The village transformed time back one hundred years. Dairy animals grazed in the front yards. Mother chickens, ducks and geese directed their young to safer ground. Horse drawn hay wagons were driven through the town. Women milked the cows and goats in the fields three times a day.

In the Old German cemetery, a few tombstones were visible including the names of Bamesberger, Metzger, Fischer, Krauss, and Keller. German cemeteries are hard to find in the Ukraine since the Russians had used the markers for various things. One group found markers with visible inscriptions used as the under-structure of a dry creek bridge.

Several days later, the Railes headed for the Beresan villages with a group of fifteen. Families from St. Francis that can trace their roots to this area include the Holzwarths and Zimbelmans. The villages of Rohrbach and Worms had suffered some in the war, but the German homes could still be seen and older locals fondly remembered the Germans as the ones who built beautiful villages.

The old German Lutheran church in Worms was being restored to a Russian Orthodox Church. The group was allowed to crawl to the top of the steeple by the construction workers with a series of homemade ladders and the assurance that everything was safe. OSHA would have had a heart attack! The aerial view from the top showed almost level land similar to northwest Kansas. No woodland was visible. The wheat fields were ready for harvest, and the sunflowers were just blooming.

The Journey to the Homeland was an opportunity for the Railes and other German-Russians to return to the birthplaces of parents and grandparents. Homes, schools and churches built by ancestors were visited. Stories were heard of how the German inhabitants had worked hard to make the land prosperous and the villages beautiful. Old German emigration records were found in the Odessa State Archives and plans will be made to retrieve the records.

Traveling in Ukraine taught the group to be flexible, open-minded and not in a hurry. The accommodations were most adequate despite daily unannounced turn off of water and electricity. Arriving and departing the Odessa Airport was time consuming and annoying, but at times quite comical. American dollars could be exchanged to Ukrainian coupons (if you could find a bank with enough to spare). Six dollars could make you a millionaire in coupons. While there has been an increase in crime, the group felt safer in Ukraine than in most North American cities. The biggest danger they faced in Odessa was crossing the streets with drivers who ignore pedestrians.

With all of the inconveniences, everyone returned to America feeling their dreams had been fulfilled. A bonus was the heartfelt reception received from the Ukrainian people who provided the group with a link to their ancestors. The American visitors were moved by the generosity and kindness displayed every day.

More tours are being planned for 1997 and 1998. For more information, contact Mike Miller at North Dakota State University, P.O. Box 5599, Fargo, ND 58105,, or by phone at 701-231-8416 or Penny Raile at 213-656-8084 in Los Angeles.

Click on a photo to view a larger image!

The village sign of Karmanova formerly call Neudorf. The village was founded by Germans in 1809.
Woman canning cherries in her front yard in Glueckstal (now called Glinnoje).
Woman of Glueckstal (Glinnoje) taking her cow to graze in the morning.
Horse and wagon in Rohrbach now know as Nowoswetlowka. The village is about 66 miles from Odessa. Rohrbach was first built in 1809.
The old German Evangelical Lutheran church of Neudorf built in 1825. The building is now used as a school.

Reprinted with permission of the St. Francis Herald.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller